U.S. military giving troops more leeway for religious clothing, beards

Wed Jan 22, 2014 7:27pm EST
 
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By David Alexander

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Pentagon took steps on Wednesday to give individual troops greater latitude to wear turbans, head scarfs, yarmulkes and other religious clothing with their uniforms, but advocacy groups said the new policy fell short of what they were seeking.

"The military departments will accommodate individual expressions of sincerely held beliefs (conscience, moral principles, or religious beliefs) of service members" unless it might affect military readiness or unit cohesion, the updated policy on religious accommodation said.

The policy was mainly expected to affect Sikhs, Muslims, Jews and members of other groups that wear beards or articles of clothing as part of their religion. It also could affect Wiccans and others who may obtain tattoos or piercings for religious reasons.

Lieutenant Commander Nate Christensen, a Pentagon spokesman, said for the first time the Defense Department's policy encouraged acceptance in the military of beards, long hair and articles of clothing worn for religious reasons so long as they do not interfere with good order and discipline.

A service member who wants to wear a beard or article of clothing for religious reasons must seek permission, or an accommodation, from the military. The Pentagon previously made only a small number of accommodations to its uniform policy to enable Sikhs to wear turbans.

Advocacy groups expressed concern that the updated policy does little to protect Sikhs and others from the whims of their commanders.

Amardeep Singh, a spokesman for the Sikh Coalition, said it was the first time the Pentagon had indicated it was willing to accommodate long hair grown for religious purposes.

Noting that the religious accommodation would have to be approved each time a service member changed assignments, Singh said, "What is disappointing ... is that the presumptive bar on the Sikh articles of faith remains.   Continued...